Monthly Archives: March 2012

30/3/12 – Where to go for April snow?

Spring-like Ischgl slopes this time last year

Spring ski deals have been landing in my inbox thick and fast this week. Inghams has amazing April savings – Courchevel or St Christoph am Arlberg for £349, including flights and half-board – while Powder White has slashed hundreds of pounds off holidays in St Anton and Meribel and extended the season for several of its properties. I’m sure Crystal, Iglu Ski and other operators and agents have bargains as well.

Most cut-price offers are chalet-based – not my ideal set-up as I prefer b&b or self-catering to take advantage of “local life” – but when such great savings are on offer, no matter.

Do be aware, however, that even in a bumper snow year it’s still worth aiming high (a top of somewhere around 3,000m, I suggest) if you want quality conditions.

Afternoon ski-touring in the woods near Anzere

Even if – like in many places – you still have a metre of snow at village level, if it’s 20 degrees by day then that snow will be foot-deep slush by 2pm unless you’re properly high and – just as crucially – north-ish facing.

Last weekend in south-facing Anzere, which still has mountains of snow in the village (at 1,500m), by 1pm it was over, even on upper slopes (2,400m). I was happy to ski in the morning and go touring through the woods in the afternoon, or sit on the balcony or swim at the great new indoor-outdoor pool (more on this nice, affordable Swiss resort here).

The high slopes at Grimentz last weekend

By contrast an hour away in the Val d’Anniviers, the resorts of Zinal and Grimentz had wintry piste conditions from three of their top stations (each around 2,800-2,900m), and the week-old, tracked-out powder by the side wasn’t bad either. The crucial thing was that the worthwhile top slopes were north or north-east facing (the fourth top, which faces south at 2,800m, was heavy slush by lunchtime).

The other consideration is that places where you typically find lovely “firn” or “corn snow” off-piste at this time of year (caused by freeze-thaw) may not be as good as usual.

A wet-snow slide of the full snowpack that started on a slope of around 30 degrees and crept a surprisingly long way

In Anzere you can often ski almost every square inch of south-facing slope safely during freeze-thaw if you catch it at the right time of day.

However, the cracks in the snowpack that appeared in December – after 2m of snow fell on warm, bare ground – are still there. They haven’t responded well to blasting, but some readily slide off by themselves.

Sunny side up: lunch outdoors is a pleasure of a spring trip. Just don't necessarily expect to do much skiing afterwards

“Hors piste interdit”, read a sign at the top of Le Bate at Anzere, and patrollers were posted at strategic spots near the cracks, on the alert for one to turn into something like the lift-destroying, wet-snow slide of a few weeks ago near Valmorel in France (watch the footage here).

I may not ski this April, but if I was planning a trip for myself – an affordable week or long weekend with the hope of off-piste and enough late-season après-life – these are the places I’d consider:

The Guspis off-piste run at Andermatt in wintry conditions - but this is a good spring bet, too

Engelberg (Switzerland, nearest airport Zurich) – slopes to at least 3,000m, largely north-facing; open till 29 May; great guiding office (see my article about that here).

Monterosa (Italy, Milan or Turin) – Amazingly, until this resort closes on 15 April this Italian “three valleys” is offering a free lift pass to everyone who stays three or more nights (half-board) in Gressoney or Champoluc. The slopes go to about 3,200m and face in all directions, and there are legendary off-piste runs down wild valleys (with cheapish guiding) and superb, great-value food on and off the mountain.

Andermatt (Switzerland, Zurich) – Lower Naetschen will be closed, but the 3,000-ish-metre Gemsstock mountain has an amazing north-facing bowl and various back routes. Read more in my Telegraph report here.

Zermatt (Switzerland, Zurich or Geneva) – several high tops and possible guided descent of Schwarztor. Stay in the Walliserhof for a treat or the Alphubel for a bargain. My sister has found a super-cheap, central, family apartment but it’s such a steal that it has to remain top secret so she can always get in. Sorry!

...and when the slush sets in, here's what you can do instead

Ischgl (Austria, Innsbruck or Zurich) – up to 2,800-ish, but the main thing is that it has a lot of upper slopes and they face in various directions. A year ago we had a lot of fun there with Jim Costelloe, a Ski Club of GB leader who found us fabulous snow despite very scant cover. A friend and I even did an easy self-guided tour up a side-valley – although this year it would probably be less safe.

Tignes (France, Geneva or Chambery I think) – When there was virtually no snow last November, we had great conditions on the glacier. Stay on the upper slopes throughout the area for quality snow and see here for more about its group off-piste days out. Go the first weekend of May to catch the Black Shoes Telemark Festival’s 20th anniversary. The other high French resorts (Deux Alpes, Alpe d’Huez, Val Thorens) should be fine, too.

Obergurgl and/or Soelden (Austria, Innsbruck, Zurich or Salzburg) – They didn’t benefit from the big weather fronts in December and January, which approached from the north and blanketed the Arlberg again and again before arriving in the Oetz valley as wind. But now, conditions look great. Take the bus to the Aquadome at Langenfeld if it’s boiling hot in the afternoon and don’t miss the Nederhut après-ski on Mon, Wed and Fri.

I’m a great fan of St Anton, where I have been late in the season several times (most lately to do the Weisse Rausch, a mad annual race), but I recommend it less as a late-season place than my two other Austrian tips, as the number of its slopes that are really up near its tops, as well as being north-ish facing, seems to be fewer for its size, and rather scattered about, compared with other options. But if you like a busy town with plenty of après-ski, this is still a good bet well into April.

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Filed under Austria, Food and drink, Italy, Link to article by Yolanda Carslaw, Link to film, Off-piste, Racing, Ski touring, Switzerland

22/3/12 – Poor Tom Lynch, but today’s slopes aren’t built for high speeds

I was dismayed to read in the papers that Tom Lynch, the British skier who died in Val d’Isere on Tuesday after crashing into a snow cannon, may have been trying to break the 100kph barrier while using an iPhone app called Ski Tracks. Read the story in the Telegraph here.

Followers of this blog will know what I think about gadgets on the slopes – and elsewhere, for that matter. Read this post from last October to find out – and in the same post you can also find out what happened when I sampled the Ski Tracks app a couple of years ago.

I very much feel for Tom’s family and friends, and whether or not this or any gadget encourages people to ski beyond their capabilities and lose control I don’t know.

What I do hope is that, whatever the cause of his accident, others will take heed about speed.

Many of today’s slopes – especially the ones typically frequented by Brits, in over-rated places such as Val d’Isere – are so crowded that tearing around them at high speed is madness.

There are, however, ways to ski at pace without putting yourself and others in undue danger – and even to have your kph recorded (and not on a gadget you are carrying, which I think is safer).

The safest way to be a speed merchant - in this case, at the Inferno in Muerren

I’m not talking about the speed traps dotted about in some resorts but about the dozens of amateur races – downhills, giant slaloms, parallel slaloms – that take place all over the Alps. The Germans have been enjoying these alongside locals for years, but surprisingly few Brits join in with the Euro-organised ones.

A few weekends ago, for instance, you could choose between the Parsenn Derby in Davos and the Inter-Club Championships in Gstaad, for instance. Last weekend the City Ski Championships took place in Crans, and the weekend after next there’s the Gardenissima in Val Gardena as well as the Allalin in Saas Fee. Then on 4 April there’s a Ski Club of GB dual slalom in Tignes.

Read about some of Europe’s great amateur races here – and with a bit of planning, you too can be a speed merchant – but in a controlled environment (or semi-controlled, in the case of the Weisse Rausch in St Anton…), where your chances of colliding with an obstacle or another skier are pretty low and a helmet will be compulsory.

There are plenty of race-training courses for adults these days – with the likes of Amanda Pirie, Phil Smith and organisations such as Inspired to Ski – which should make you safer at speed.

My other tip for collision-free skiing is to steer clear of the busy resorts and go to ones with less kilometre-age but where you have those kilometres pretty much to yourself. Where are those? Now, that would be telling…

Addendum, 22/3/12: Here is an interesting thread on relating to collisions.

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Filed under France, Racing

10/3/12 – How to have fun not in St Moritz

Only 42km to go... Racers set off last Sunday in the Engadine cross-country marathon

I’ve recently returned from four days near St Moritz, eastern Switzerland, where I was watching the Engadine marathon a week after Pippa Middleton gave the sport a flash of publicity (read more here and here).

St Moritz is named by Where to Ski and Snowboard, the annual guidebook, as one of the world’s priciest resorts.

'This old thing? Oh, I just picked it up at Gucci...'

'This old thing? Oh, I just picked it up at Gucci...'

I can believe this, having visited during my years as a polo reporter, and with its formal five-star hotels, its scary designer boutiques, its coiffed clientele and its trafficky centre, the town is not my kind of place.

However, the rest of the Engadine Valley is a different matter. There you’ll find tranquil, historic villages (free to roam), awesome scenery (free to admire) and excellent downhill and langlauf skiing (the lift pass is expensive, at up to 73 francs a day, but I have a plan to minimise the damage – see further down).

This was a kind of knobbly pasta with potato and cheese. Well... langlauf is good exercise, you know

We stayed in a good-value hotel in Pontresina, but the cheapest rooms in the district start at £50 for a double in the most basic village b&bs. There is a hostel at Pontresina and a caravan park near Muottas Muragl, both of which were bristling with langlaufers (usually a down-to-earth, budget-conscious lot) during the marathon.

We found restaurant meals similarly priced to elsewhere in Switzerland, often with a regional or Italian twist (the border is close and Italian is as widely spoken as Swiss-German). At the characterful Berninahaus, 10 minutes from Pontresina, we had a substantial meal for four, including wine, water and coffee (and a free schnapps), for about £100. The rule – as everywhere – is that if it looks traditional and solid, it’s likely to be cheaper than the hip-looking places next-door.

It wasn't guarded 24/7 so I managed to get a snap

On our short visit, we came across a few surprises – starting with the secretive camouflaged Range Rovers in our hotel basement parking, which were being tested, perhaps for the next Great British Winter, on the mountain roads in disguise.

The three peaks of Piz Palu, from the top of Diavolezza

Other surprises followed – not least the emptiness of underrated Diavolezza and Lagalb, cable-cars with nearly 1,000m of vertical 10 minutes from Pontresina. This is where my mother learnt to ski as a child, and I’ll be writing about them in more detail for a magazine next season.

View from the top of Piz Nair. To get up here, park or take the bus to Celerina, avoiding St Moritz town

For now my tip is to ski Diavolezza all morning, stopping to take in the view of Piz Palu and Bernina at the top, and have lunch at the excellent restaurant at the top of Lagalb before skiing Lagalb in the afternoon sun. If there’s powder, you’re in for a treat at both places, although beware rocks this year: despite great cover in most of the Alps, the Engadine hasn’t had its greatest winter.

There is masses of skiing, over three main areas, but I found this was an area where I didn’t want to ski every day, so much else is there to do.

Sleigh, foot or langlauf skis are the only ways into Val Fex, near Sils Maria

With this in mind, and to limit the damage of the lift pass price, if I was there for a week, I’d ski three or four very full days, plus a Friday night floodlit skiing on Corvatsch.

I’d be sure, if I had good weather, to visit all the top stations, all of which have easy red runs down: Piz Nair, Corvatsch (the red from the top to Fuorcla Surlej restaurant has incredible views to Piz Bernina and the Bianca Ridge) and Diavolezza. If there was a blizzard, I’d steer clear of treeless Diavolezza and Lagalb and head for the two valley runs at Corvatsch – both are like downhill courses through the forest.

Painted decoration on a house in Pontresina

I’d spend the other days exploring the Engadine valley and its side-valleys (Roseg, Morteratsch and Fex) on langlauf skis, on foot and by car or public transport, and roaming the lovely villages, with their museums and churches and painted ancient houses.

By all means spend time, too, in glitzy St Moritz if you like. Just don’t come running to me if you end up spending 20 francs on a couple of ever-so-chic espressos by accident…

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Filed under Food and drink, Link to article by Yolanda Carslaw, Off-piste, Racing, Switzerland, Transport